CHAPTER 7 — Campaign in Greece
Campaign in Greece
In Greece Petrol Company first met that pattern of death, destruction and defeat so often to be repeated before final victory. There the Division fought its first campaign, with Army Service Corps units functioning according to the book— or trying to. This campaign, like the one in Crete, has aroused much controversy, and armchair strategists, mightier with the pen than with the sword, have raked it well over.
But because the driver in his truck, like the infanteer in his slit trench, has little chance of gathering in the broad issues involved, these will be sketched briefly as we go along, to let him know just what was at stake as he hurtled over the glorified cart tracks of Greece or cursed the strafings of the Luftwaffe.
By February 1941, General O'Connor's victories in North Africa had destroyed ten Italian divisions, captured 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1290 guns. His army had advanced 600 miles at a cost of fewer than 3000 casualties. The Greek adventure robbed these successes of what seemed to be their logical fruition—a drive to Tripoli, the securing of air bases in North Africa, and the restoration of British control over the Central Mediterranean.
Our GOG had no illusions about how tough the Greek campaign was going to be. He made that plain when bidding farewell to General Wavell in Egypt on 5 March, and also in a Special Order of the Day which was read to all troops after they had sailed.
‘It was a solemn thought’, General Freyberg records,‘to be the Advance Guard of a British Army in the Balkans, especially against an enemy like the Germans, fully equipped and outnumbering us by three or four to one. It is true that they had no easy lines of communications; but difficult though these were they were quicker than our seaborne system of supplies. I wondered who had given the order for us to come. I should not have liked to make the decision.’page 79
Italy had attacked Greece on 28 October 1940. Against their more numerous and better-armed foe the Greeks fought well, quickly seizing the initiative, and threatening to hurl the Italians back through Albania into the sea. So, after anxious consultations between Hitler and Mussolini, in February 1941 German armies began to assemble in Bulgaria, where they became a menace not only to the flank of the Greek Army fighting in Albania, but also to Yugoslavia and Turkey.
This threat of a strong German thrust down the Balkan Peninsula to the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps through Turkey and Syria (then held by Vichy France) to the Suez Canal, was far too dangerous to ignore. With the Greeks holding the Italians, Yugoslavia coming in (it was hoped) on our side, and Turkey at least remaining neutral, there seemed an odds-on chance that a British Expeditionary Force to Greece could serve a useful purpose. It would stiffen Balkan resistance to the Axis. It would most certainly make the Germans fight for what they wanted, and it might have far-reaching effects on the attitude of Russia and America. Besides, underlying the whole problem was the moral issue. Not only was Britain anxious to honour her treaty pledges to Greece, her only remaining ally on the Continent, but failure to do so might have thrown the few states still neutral into the Axis fold.
That New Zealand troops were chosen to be the advanced guard of this expedition was an honour indeed—though one of which even our GOC was unaware when he issued orders on Christmas Day 1940 for 4 Infantry Brigade (then in the Western Desert) to concentrate with the rest of the Division at Helwan. At that time, as we have seen, the Second Echelon had already begun to move from the United Kingdom to the Middle East. Not until 17 February 1941 was Freyberg apprised of the New Zealand Division's vital role; and so, with fully one-third of his force still on the high seas, it took planning of a high order to channel all the various units and their equipment swiftly to the embarkation point.
Secrecy was essential. And Petrol Company, groping around with the others in the murk of a three-day khamseen at Amiriya, could only guess from their issue of tropical kit and the usual page 80 rumours and ‘latrinograms’ just where the coming move would take them. Even the Brigadiers did not know. On 24 February General Freyberg interviewed them singly and disclosed their destination—a line to be held along the mountains of Macedonia (Northern Greece). He warned them that the move must not be discussed, even among themselves. On 26 February orders were issued to Divisional COs; but still no theatre of war was named.
From Amiriya units moved at the direction of Middle East Movement Control, whose ways seemed more than a little strange and caused the GOC much concern. He sailed from Alexandria with the first flight in HMS York on the morning of 6 March. Other ‘grey funnels’ in that historic convoy were HM Ships Gloucester, Orion, Ajax, Breconshire and Bonaventure. And as they waited on board for the time of departure our soldiers watched every kind of weapon and military vehicle moving to the ships, mostly small freighters, which were to carry this mass of equipment to Greece.
With it went the vehicles of Petrol Company, under command of Captain McDonagh, with one driver to each truck. On leaving camp they had just enough petrol to get them to the wharves at Alex. There fuel tanks were drained and the vehicles hoisted aboard. Their vessel was the Thermopylae. The balance of Petrol Company crossed with the third flight on 17 March in HMAS Perth. Major Dickson was OC Troops on board this vessel, which carried other units besides his own. He reports a very fast crossing (23 hours) in fine weather, and troops were treated with the usual excellent naval hospitality. The Company disembarked at Piraeus, the port of Athens, carrying field kits and rifles, and were taken by Army MT to their first camp at Kifisia, a few miles from the Greek capital.
True to their flair for independent action, on the night before embarkation some forty or fifty Petrol Company men took French leave to go ‘on the scoot’ in Alex. They had decided, reasonably enough, that the fleshpots of the city were preferable to the trials and discomforts of the Amiriya transit camp, where conditions were, in fact, extremely disagreeable. And besides, there were reunions to be celebrated with friends and relatives recently arrived from the United Kingdom, and page 81 among the 4th Reinforcements from New Zealand. There were also some fights.
So one of the first events for Petrol Company in the new country was a man-sized Orderly Room with most of the culprits duly arraigned. Similar ceremonies followed, as scores —real or imagined—were settled between the hard-bitten veterans of the First Echelon and the much-travelled warriors of the Second, who were still regarded as ‘glamour boys’ and ‘Cooks' Tourists’.
Nevertheless, the Company soon coalesced, and all such nonsense ceased when the men were given a real job of work. In the meantime Captain McDonagh's private gaol, which had somehow found its way to Greece, along with his own private bath—a porcelain one—was kept fully stocked. This unofficial ‘hoosegah’ was made of sheet iron; and Erle Stewart1 remembers helping once to bust it open and release the contents, which included his own special cobber, Trevor Casey.2 Casey, incidentally, was one of the Company's ‘juveniles’, and had enlisted for service when scarcely 18. But that did not prevent him from becoming a first-class soldier and a noted escapist from the Jerry ‘bag’, first in Crete, later in Italy.
Concerning these early-day orderly rooms in Greece, Second-Lieutenant Collins recalls one typical bright spot. He then had command of the Company's B Section, composed entirely of Second Echelon men. Following what must have been a pretty general Donnybrook, he found one morning virtually his whole section up on the carpet. Captain Ramsden, then second-in- command of the Company, treated them all to a stiff dressing-down. ‘Some men behave like gentlemen’, he thundered, ‘others like mongrels’. Whereupon Collins's driver with a verbal side-kick at Major Dickson's batman (known to the Company as ‘the gentleman's gentleman’), remarked in an audible stage whisper: ‘Then I must be the mongrel's mongrel’.
For the first few days it was ‘roses, roses all the way’ for our men in Greece. Once again they found themselves among friendly people in a friendly land. ‘It reminds me’, one man page 82 wrote, ‘of the hills round Matau, and there are small herds of sheep—very poor specimens, more like a cross between a sheep and a goat, and mostly black. They are minded by shepherds, some women and some boys, but all very old-fashioned and poorly dressed. It is quite hot in the daytime; I am in shorts and singlet; but the nights are a bit cold.’
The Greek people gave the men a resounding welcome, showering their trucks with flowers, offering fruit, cigarettes, smiles and hospitality. Athens, by day, still had an air of gaiety, though there were few young men in the streets and many of the local folk wore black armbands, in mourning for relatives lost on the Albanian front. At night there was a curfew and a heavy blackout.
In a letter home one Petrol Company driver wrote:
It is great fun trying to make them understand what you want. The first night we landed we went into the local village (which was well back, and had a few wines) and tried to tell them that we wanted a feed of eggs and chips. But they could not understand until I went out into the kitchen and produced an egg, a potato, and the frying-pan. Then we duly got our meal—all for ninepence!
I had an afternoon leave from there to go into the capital, about twelve miles away…. arrived in the heart of the city and had a trim up and shampoo and then away for a bath at the local bathhouse, which was huge—six storeys high and nothing but bathrooms. We went up to the fourth floor, as there were soldiers waiting everywhere below. We found it just as bad up there, and had to wait for 1½ hours. But our turn finally came, and we were provided with towels and soap for 7d. and were supposed to tip the attendant about another 2½d.
We are quite used to the money now; it's a little more than double our pence to the £1.
There were some wonderful old ruins on the hills outside the town, but we had no time to go to them as it was nearly dark….
I must close now, dear, as I am on cookhouse fatigue today and it is getting near teatime; bully stew and hard biscuits, followed by rice and raisins tonight.
The Division's front-line units were also encamped among the hills, at Hymettus, a few miles away from the ASC lines. But time was working against the Allies; so, after a brief rest there, our troops began their long trek northwards into the mountains of Macedonia, where Greek troops were deployed page 83 across the path of the expected invasion. The New Zealanders were to hold the Aliakmon line, extending from the sea coast south of Salonika in a north-westerly direction to the Yugoslav border. If Yugoslavia stood firm, and resisted Axis pressure, the anticipated advance of the Germans from Bulgaria into northern Greece could well be halted at this line, which covered the vital passes through the mountains. But if the Yugoslavs ‘broke’ and allowed the Germans through, the Aliakmon line would not be worth the proverbial cupful of cold snow. German forces could then pour down through the Monastir Gap to Florina and Kozani, encircle the Aliakmon positions, and put every soldier there in the bag.
Besides the New Zealand Division, the British Expeditionary Force in Greece was originally planned to include 1 Armoured Brigade, 6 Australian Division, the Polish Independent Brigade Group, and 7 Australian Division. Formations were to proceed to Greece in that order. But with General Rommel's sudden advance into Cyrenaica the Polish Brigade Group and 7 Australian Division were held back to defend Tobruk. Sixth Australian Division arrived late; and so, when the Germans invaded northern Greece early in April, the New Zealand Division and 1 Armoured Brigade were the only British formations complete and in place in the forward area.
Their position was most precarious. Three Greek divisions (one of them only just formed) had been detailed to assist the British force; but they were poorly equipped, had few automatic weapons, little artillery, and no anti-tank guns. ‘My visit to the Greek Army’, writes General Freyberg, ‘filled me with mixed feelings…. I was astonished to see that their first line transport was composed entirely of ox wagons and pack animals which of course could only travel a very limited distance in a day at a very slow speed—actually at a slower pace than troops could march.’ When the New Zealanders arrived, 19 Greek Division was withdrawn and moved to Thrace. This meant that our brigades had to prepare and hold a defensive position on a 28,500 yard front, right in the path of a German Balkan Army numbering twelve to fourteen divisions backed by armour and a vastly superior air force. On 3 April General Freyberg wrote in his diary: ‘The situation page 84 is a grave one; we shall be fighting against heavy odds in a plan that has been ill-conceived and one that violates every principle of military strategy.’ He considered that had the New Zealanders been forced to stay on that position and fight, the Division, with the whole of its equipment, would have been rounded up in the first phase of the campaign.
Meanwhile Petrol Company and other NZASC units, all unaware of the dark clouds gathering, were constantly on the move over narrow winding roads under trying conditions. Thousands of tons of supplies of all kinds—petrol, food, ammunition, RE stores, hospital supplies, tents, boots, and blankets—were pouring into Greece. All had to be uplifted, unscrambled, and delivered to the units, now taking up their positions amid the rain, ice and snow of the northern mountains. Sometimes troops were carried; and Petrol Company, in addition, bore the responsibility of ‘feeding’ the whole Division (whose headquarters was then at Katerini) with petrol, oil and lubricants, to keep its heterogeneous mass of transport moving.
Alec Rusden wrote at this stage: ‘Went with my own officer, Capt Ramsden, on a sort of recce on the journey through Greece, and for the first time started to serve in my correct capacity—that of S/Sgt of the Petrol Supply Detail. We were a small unit within the Company—one officer, one senior NCO, two corporals and one driver.’ In one form or another—sometimes just a corporal and a couple of other ranks, at other times a full-scale Petrol Issuing Section—the Petrol Supply Detail, operating a petrol point, became well known to the Division during later campaigns.
Its function was to ‘retail the juice’—sometimes from dumps, often from the trays of half-a-dozen trucks—to the transport of the fighting units. The Detail kept accounts of all issues made, and of stocks on hand, so that a daily statement of the Division's POL situation could be prepared by Petrol Company's commanding officer and submitted to HQ NZASC. From there Divisional Headquarters was kept informed of the petrol position, upon which the Division's mobility depended.
Bulk supplies came forward from a well-planned system of Base and Advanced Base Supply Depots, Forward Supply page 85 Depots, and Field Dumps, whose establishment and operation were the business of the DDST (Deputy Director of Supply and Transport, then Brigadier W. d'A. Collings). He kept in close touch with the tactical situation and made his dispositions accordingly.
Some three months before the main force had gone to Greece a New Zealand unit (3 Section of 9 Railway Survey Company) went over to help survey the wide Thriasion Plain, west of Athens, where it was proposed to establish a depot for petrol and oil. This depot, however, was not constructed; and it was decided instead that petrol would be imported in bulk and sent forward in tins. The section also helped in a reconnaissance and survey of the Greek railway system—the upshot being a decision that supplies would be maintained by road, as the railways were short of rolling stock and, in any case, fully used by the Greeks.
These decisions directly affected Petrol Company drivers, officers and NCOs, by determining the pattern of their operations in Greece. A good motor road led from Athens to Larisa, and continued for some distance north-west. A branch of this road ran from Kozani to Salonika. Almost all the others were mere cart tracks, so road repair and construction was an added responsibility for the Division as it manned the so-called Aliakmon line. Parts of the main highway were mountainous, with all the hazards snow and ice create on a narrow, winding, steep-graded route.
The only first-class ports in Greece were Piraeus and Salonika, with a second-class one at Volos. There were a few smaller harbours, notably at Stilis and Khalkis, of some use for supply purposes, but they lacked facilities. Base Supply Depot for the Force was at Athens racecourse, with an Advanced Base at Larisa. The latter was to be supplied by rail and road from Athens, and by rail from Volos, since the road from Volos to Larisa was not good enough for truck transport. No use was made of the port facilities at Salonika.
To our Petrol Company drivers, then trying to cope with the exigencies of a supply situation which to them seemed more than a little crazy, the following report by the DDST, Brigadier Collings, will be illuminating:page 86
Even before I arrived in Greece, some large consignments of supplies had arrived. Owing to the demands of secrecy, the Base Supply Depot had had no previous warning to expect them, and as soon as they did arrive the ships had to be unloaded and released and the docks cleared without any delay. The staff of the BSD was quite inadequate to control the situation, and when I visited the Depot, which was established on the Athens Racecourse, the morning following my arrival, I found a scene of the greatest confusion.
The grandstands were piled to the roof with supplies, a DID was trying to operate in the Totalisator Hall, and the race-track, for four furlongs, was one almost solid stack of supplies, all hopelessly mixed up and with an enormously high percentage of broken cases. On the far side of the course was a large stock of petrol and lubricants, and very close to it many thousand gallons of Molotov Cocktail mixture. The Depot had no idea of what stocks they had, and even had personnel been available for stocktaking, this would have been a physical impossibility.
The OC was recovering from the effects of a broken pelvis, and was on crutches and hardly able to get from his car to his office without assistance; and of his two officers, one spent his whole time at the docks, and the other trying to load up convoys and trains. The Depot Supt, a Master Baker, who was making gallant efforts to deal with the situation, was at his wits' end.
The situation at Larisa, though on a smaller scale, was just as bad, if not worse. The DAQMG before my arrival had given orders, with the objects of relieving the strain on the BSD, helping to clear the docks, and making a start for an Advance Supply Depot, that trains should be loaded with supplies at the docks at Piraeus, and sent straight through to Larisa. The only RASC at that place was a det of 232 (Cypriot) Coy, who were instructed to do the best they could about these supplies until a Supply det arrived to take them over. As there was very little transport and labour, the supplies were unloaded onto the side of the line, which soon became very congested, and where there was no prospect of guarding them effectively. No way bills or convoy notes had been made out at the docks, and it was a physical impossibility for 232 Coy to check these supplies.
For the first phase of the Greek campaign, i.e., the period between the arrival of the Force at the beginning of March and the German declaration of war on Greece on 6 April, the following supply-line plan operated:
|Ports||—||Piraeus and Volos|
|Base Area||—||Athens page 87|
|FSDs||—||Livadhion, Servia, Kozani|
|Field Dumps||—||Katerini, Veroia, Edhessa, Amindaion|
Each FSD was to be kept stocked with ten days'supplies, and POL at the rate of 100 miles per vehicle for the portion of the Force which was expected to be based on it. Two refills of ammunition were also to be stored near each FSD. At the forward dumps, POL at the rate of 100 miles per vehicle was stored, in addition to rations.
All transport units were pressed into service for local details as soon as they had any vehicles and until they were required to move forward. Included in these was the Divisional Petrol Company, which soon followed the Division on its three-day trek northward into the mountains. There the Company's base was at Sadovon in the Olympus Range, near the town of Elasson, some miles to the south of the front-line positions. Between them and the Division lay the famous Mount Olympus and the Olympus and Servia passes. Eastward, between the ranges and the coast, was the Platamon railway tunnel. The passes and the tunnel provided gateways through which Axis troops might move if they once secured a footing in northern Greece; so, besides manning, roading, and constructing defences on the virtually unprepared positions of the Aliakmon line, our Division was also required to prepare demolitions which would deny those vital defiles to the enemy.
Between Mount Olympus and the front line lay the town of Katerini, with good railway facilities, where Staff-Sergeant Rusden and Corporal Fitzgerald3 had been sent to prepare a Forward Petrol Dump for the Division.
‘Those were busy days’, Staff-Sergeant Rusden recalls, ‘with very little transport, and that only by courtesy of the Supply Company. I think Major Pryde4 was heartily sick of us by the time the Dump was finished. We were unofficially looked after by a wild-looking specimen of Greek manhood who flashed a dangerous-looking scimitar whenever we were watching him, page 88 and explained with extravagant gestures just what he would do to the Germans if they came. Jimmy was his name, and he had a long white beard. Eventually we completed the Divisional Dump with POL—but within a matter of hours came the order: “All POL to be loaded and railed south. Special train detailed. Immediate.” What a blow! But it had to be done, and on time, too. Fortunately I had some spare drachmæ, and was able to hire some Greek labour, so the train was loaded and away on time. I heard later that the whole lot was blown sky-high not far down the line.’
By that time, of course, the gathering stormclouds had burst. On 6 April Germany attacked both Greece and Yugoslavia, crumpling their armies in very short order. For the British there was only one answer: a rapid withdrawal from the now untenable Aliakmon positions to the ‘Line of the Passes’ flanking Mount Olympus. On 7 April the Force Commander, General Wilson, gave orders for this; and so, nearly a month's work by the New Zealand Division, and a large proportion of its wire and mines, which had been put into the Aliakmon line, went by the board. Petrol Company aided the withdrawal by uplifting troops and supplies. During the last days of March and the first few days of April, our drivers had been flat out carting POL from Larisa to petrol points and to the forward dump at Katerini. From there, as we have seen, it was promptly sent south again, and some of it lost.
On 7 April a Petrol Company convoy of 35 3-ton and 18 30- cwt lorries uplifted the newly-arrived ? Australian Battalion with baggage and delivered the troops to their positions at Vevi. The vehicles brought a back-load of petrol from Servia to No. 5 FSD. Returning to camp at 9 a.m. next day, our trucks were despatched almost immediately in two convoys, one to uplift RE stores from Katerini, the other to load petrol and rations at Kozani and deliver them to No. 5 FSD. The latter task was completed and the vehicles back in camp by 11 p.m.
Two hours later (at 1 a.m.) the first convoy reported in with its load of RE stores, and was despatched, at 10 a.m. on 11 April, to the FSD, returning at midday. At 3 p.m. all Petrol Company trucks were ordered out on a three-fold mission: (1) to evacuate a Greek and an Australian battalion from Amindaion page 89 to Kozani; (2) return to the Amindaion area and bring out ammunition to Kozani; (3) return to Amindaion and retrieve stocks of POL. Since by then the enemy had reached Salonika, and the evacuation of the Aliakmon line was completed, this order was modified, the petrol and ammunition being taken instead to Grevena. Lieutenant Jackson,5 the OC's liaison officer with the convoy, could find no trace of the Australian battalion, which had presumably been evacuated by other means. Many Greek soldiers were brought out, in a more or less demoralised state, and our drivers had some difficulty in getting them to quit the vehicles so they could carry out the rest of their assignment.
During this operation Lieutenant Chissell's6 section of twenty-two trucks received some attention from the Luftwaffe, and he showed great resource in getting his load-carriers out of trouble by leading them down a riverbed to Trikkala, and thence back to Petrol Company headquarters. Sergeant Greig also had a narrow escape with some trucks at Kozani, bringing them out just ahead of the Germans as they entered that town. This was a period of non-stop activity for Petrol Company drivers, who played a vital part in what General Freyberg has described as ‘a most successful withdrawal to the Line of the Passes without loss of any kind’. All ammunition, petrol, and supplies dumped in forward areas were salvaged, all troops safely evacuated.
These operations were helped by prevailing drizzle and low cloud—the ‘Miracle of the Mists’ —which kept troops and transport largely out of sight from marauding aircraft. But in the days that followed there was no such heaven-sent cover; and since a marked absence of the RAF in Greece was often noted, with scathing appellations such as ‘Rare As Fairies’ and others more pungent, a word should be said about our air situation at that time. General Freyberg reports on it as follows:
When HQ first arrived at Dolikhe just south of Olympus, we saw British bomber formations with fighter escorts flying to the north-west and we heard reports of enemy tank columns being caught in page 90 defiles. These encouraging sights and items of news were, however, over in a few days. Our bombers at Larisa were destroyed on the ground together with some fighters in a raid by some fifty dive bombers. Our reserves were so small and our AA artillery was so inadequate that it was not possible to maintain squadrons at Larisa, where constant large fighter patrols would have been necessary. As it was, on the front and over the back areas huge formations of enemy bombers operated without interference. We heard reports from the south of heroic encounters between Hurricanes and enemy formations outnumbering them by four and five to one, but that could not last long. The RAF was swept from the skies as far as we were concerned.
Air Vice-Marshal D'Albiac, commanding the RAF in Greece, has written: ‘Expressed in terms of aircraft, my total serviceable strength in the country was some eighty aircraft, to which were opposed, according to all reports, approximately 800 German aircraft on the Eastern Front (Bulgaria and Roumania) and 160 Italian aircraft based in Albania plus 150 based in Italy but operating over Albania and Greece, mainly from advanced landing grounds in Albania.’ It had been hoped that more squadrons could be diverted to Greece from the Middle East; but on the contrary it became necessary to reinforce air strength there to prevent Rommel's thrust from developing into a serious threat to Egypt. Even those reinforcements were inadequate, since between 1 January and 31 March 1941 British aircraft losses in the Middle East totalled 184, replacements 166.
By 13 April all Petrol Company vehicles had returned to Company Headquarters at Sadovon, where they immediately packed up and left for a new camp area at Dhomenikon, farther down the Sadovon-Larisa road. Next day while carting ammunition from Tirnavos to No. 5 FSD, under attack from enemy aircraft, Driver Bennett7 was killed.8 On the 15th all vehicles were standing by, awaiting instructions to commence one of the Company's most notable and meritorious jobs—the evacuation of 4 NZ Infantry Brigade from its outflanked positions at Servia Pass. This was part of yet another large-scale withdrawal—a general retreat, in fact—which was to take the page 91 whole British force back to a line across the narrow southern part of Greece in the Lamia-Molos-Thermopylae area.
At Sadovon the Company had been attached to Rear Headquarters of 6 Australian Division, with OG Petrol Company receiving his orders through that division's Brigadier Bird. For on 6 April New Zealanders and Australians had again combined to fight as an Army Corps, under command of the veteran Australian, Thomas Blamey. On 12 April this 1 Australian Corps was renamed, with a fitting exchange of compliments, 2 Anzac Corps.
Early in the morning of 17 April Major Dickson received a signal from Commander NZASC instructing that the Divisional Petrol Company, plus a section from Divisional Ammunition and a section from Divisional Supply, were to proceed that evening at 5.30 to an area near the Servia Pass, uplift 4 Brigade, and move it back to positions south of Lamia. While that was being done, Workshops and Company HQ were to proceed back along the Larisa-Volos-Lamia road to a new bivouac area ten miles outside Atalandi.
Major Dickson assumed command of the troop-carrying convoy, with instructions that the head of his column was not to pass the junction of the Servia-Olympus roads before 1 a.m. on 18 April. Captain McDonagh, in charge of Petrol Company details scheduled to move south, immediately volunteered to take Dickson's place and go forward with the northbound convoy, but that was refused. Quartermaster details with the Division's reserve clothing and blankets, which the Company was then carrying, were ordered to remain near the roadside and join the troop-carrying column when it returned from the north. As Petrol Company vehicles were moving out, Dickson had a call from OC 4 RMT Company (Major Woods9) whose own trucks were then going forward to bring out 6 Brigade from its positions near Elasson.
This doubt arose from a despatch received earlier from Captain McDonagh, who had already taken his Workshops Section and other odds-and-ends along the Larisa-Volos road, page 93 and reported it to be impassable for the main column on account of thick mud and other obstacles. Dickson passed this information on to Colonel Gentry10 at Divisional Headquarters and asked permission to move via the Larisa-Lamia route, undertaking to disperse all vehicles widely in the fields beside the road if the brigade column got held up, as expected, by traffic congestion south of Larisa.
In the meantime McDonagh's information about the state of the Volos road had been confirmed by a reconnaissance party from Divisional Headquarters, and orders were issued to change the routes, both of 4 Brigade and the 5th, which was now travelling ahead. Dickson does not seem to have received this order; but in any case he ‘took the right track’ and led his 4 Brigade convoy on through Larisa (which he entered at daybreak) and continued until halted, by a jam of traffic on the road, a few miles south of the town.
The 18th April dawned bright and clear, with no protecting mists—and enemy bombers were soon in sight. Dickson sent Don Rs along the halted column ordering it to disperse widely in the fields, where troops could debuss and go to ground, taking advantage of whatever natural cover there was. Dive-bombing and strafing commenced and continued throughout the morning. By 2.30 p.m. the column moved again. Bombing and strafing resumed during the afternoon, causing more halts; but the main convoy reached 4 Brigade Headquarters at Molos during the night, under command of Captain Hook. Dickson had gone back up the road with his own car and a Workshops truck to pick up about thirty stragglers from 4 Brigade, who, after an exhausting week, had fallen asleep in the fields and had been left there when the column moved on.
Official records describe this withdrawal of 4 Brigade, executed under the most nerve-racking conditions at a cost of only thirty casualties, in the following terms:page 94
The move south proceeded smoothly until a few miles beyond Larisa, where not only was the single road jammed with Anzac Corps traffic of all descriptions, but the whole was held up by a Partially destroyed bridge near Pharsala. The day was clear and fine, and the enemy air force was out in strength, quite unopposed. It appeared that, on the plain, air attacks were confined to very low-level bombing attacks, and machine-gunning; the dive bombing was concentrated on the pass at Pharsala. Soon no vestige of discipline existed on the road. Vehicles of all sizes were struggling to get as far south as possible in the quickest time. No interval was kept between vehicles, which made it easier for the enemy to inflict damage from the air. At times there were as many as four vehicles abreast on the road, all trying to gain the lead. Each vehicle might stop as much as twenty times during the long afternoon while its passengers took cover on the roadside.
Nothing could have been worse for morale than this constant stopping of vehicles and scattering of troops. A look-out would drum vigorously on the roof of the cab; the driver would clamp on the brake there and then, regardless of the position of his vehicle on the road; all on board would scramble for cover. All traffic would be blocked until the last passenger came back to his transport. Perhaps a vehicle, or two together, would be set on fire by bomb splinters or machine-gun incendiary bullets. This would cause further delays, until the offending vehicle was shunted off the road.
Unfortunately orders to get off the roads and disperse were given by various authorities at various points, orders not uniformly carried out, with the result that unit convoys—already somewhat scattered through joining the main stream of traffic at irregular intervals—became inextricably mixed. The efforts of some drivers to ‘catch up’ with what they considered their proper place in the convoy added to the chaos. At one stage in the afternoon Lt-col Gray,11 CO 18 Bn, went along a portion of the convoy and told all 18 Bn vehicles to keep moving despite the bombing—‘The men showed in their faces their relief and faith in this course, which in the circumstances should have been insisted on everywhere.’ But of course all commanders and drivers would not be of the same opinion, nor did the frequent blockages caused by craters and destroyed vehicles permit such a procedure.
In many of the accounts of this difficult day different people have laid the blame at different doors for the incredibly chaotic conditions. Some have blamed the Australians and the abandoned and unguarded beer canteen at Larisa. It does seem that the road discipline in Australian units was not particularly high at this stage, even taking into account the natural inclination of drivers page 95 consulted to point out faults in others that were overlooked in their own countrymen. Then again others have stated that the policy of stopping during an air attack was wrong—this is probably so, but it was inevitable. Another has taken the view, considering the amount of traffic on the road, the scale of the enemy air attacks, the complete lack of experience of the majority of all drivers of such conditions, that the move was a remarkably successful, and creditable, performance. This view appears to be realistic and final.12
By comparison, the withdrawal of 5 Brigade was a very confused and frustrating affair. Attempts to turn the convoy eastward to a staging place at Almiros, near Volos, led to some amazing adventures, with a number of units quite befogged as to where they were expected to go. For example, D Company and most of C Company, 22 Battalion, had been turned off the road at Pharsala and diverted down a third-rate road that petered out in a mule-track to the north-west of Almiros. The Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, VC,13 reached a point north of Almiros about 8 a.m. on 18 April with only two 3-ton vehicles following him. Other elements were diverted at Lamia, sent in the direction of Volos and then turned back, ending up near Molos, where the battalion eventually concentrated with the rest of 5 Brigade.14
During the withdrawal Petrol Company lost ten vehicles destroyed by enemy action and sustained some casualties. Norman Chissell, a most promising young officer, and an original member of the Ammunition Company, was killed by bomb blast. Drivers Cant15 and Corry,16 both excellent fellows, also gave their lives. Driver H. W. Morgan was mortally wounded, while several others received wounds, the list page 96 including Second-Lieutenant F. Trewby, Sergeant L. A. Crawley, Drivers Asher,17 Cashmere,18 and Rowe.19
This operation also brought the Company another decoration: a Military Medal for Corporal K. A. Bailey. With seven trucks under his charge, Bailey was attached to Second-Lieutenant Fenton's20 Divisional Ammunition group, which brought out 20 Battalion from the vicinity of its rearguard positions two miles south of Servia. At Nikaia, six or seven miles past Larisa, the convoy was ordered to leave the road and disperse while sappers cleared the approach to a badly damaged bridge.
‘Harry Dunlop21 was my driver’, Ken Bailey recalls, ‘and after lunch he went off to have a sleep under a tree. Because of the need to be ready to move, I suggested that he stick close to the truck, but he preferred the tree. That probably saved his life, because about an hour later two Jerry planes skimmed over a rise and dropped their bombs from about a hundred feet up. The bombs fell on the ground and just lay there.
‘Reg Pollock22 and I, who were filling our water bottles at the water truck, lost no time in diving under the vehicle. We lifted our heads to see what was going to happen. The bombs were lying on the ground in a line right through my trucks. Just then they exploded, and Harry's truck was riddled. Five out of the seven trucks went up, and there were many casualties among the poor infantry, who were sleeping in and under the vehicles.
‘Things were quite sticky for a while as Jerry kept coming back to strafe us. Reg Pollock ducked his head just in time to miss a piece of shrapnel which skimmed along his back and page 97 cut his web equipment in half. Harry Dunlop, owing to his liking for that tree, also lived on.’
Undeterred by the machine-gunning, Bailey, with several drivers, and Sergeant Buckleigh23 of the Ammunition Company, immediately began attending to the wounded, getting them into the shelter of a small hollow.
Concerning the withdrawal, Staff-Sergeant Rusden, comments:
S/Sgt Williams and I were the last to move on that trip, travelling on the breakdown truck. We had an interesting half-hour before we started, whispering in the darkness and cutting the harness off a couple of dozen donkeys which had been abandoned with their heavy panniers still on their backs. Were they pleased! The withdrawal was a fairly hazardous affair but in the main was carried out well. We holed up on a hillside near Atalandi and established the Company again as a going concern.
The idea then was to hold the enemy where outflanking would be more difficult on a Molos-Thermopylae-Brallos line, behind which Greek resistance could be reorganised. But it soon became evident that such resistance was out of the question. On 22 April the Greek Army surrendered. Wavell could do nothing more. The great Balkan gamble had not come off. The only alternative to losing the entire British force in Greece lay in evacuation.
This possibility had been allowed for, of course, from the start; and Admiral Cunningham has said that evacuation and its problems—which would fall to him—had never been far from his mind since the decision was reached to go to Greece. But with the enemy's overwhelming superiority in the air, and his land forces pressing strongly down the peninsula, the chances of a successful sea withdrawal looked far from bright.
Meanwhile, fighting on land continued. There was strong pressure by the triumphant Germans, bitter delaying actions by our rearguards. Sixth Brigade, plus all the New Zealand artillery, engaged the enemy at Molos; 4 Brigade delayed him at Kriekouki, south of Thebes, and again at Porto Rafti. But the big problem for Petrol Company after the withdrawal to the Thermopylae line was how and where to find petrol. According page 98 to Force Headquarters, dumps were being established at Kifissokhori, Levadhia, and on the coast road four miles north of Livanatais. But by 20 April no POL was available at any of the given dump locations, so Colonel Crump arranged for a general search.
From their much-bombed and machine-gunned camp near Atalandi, Petrol Company drivers shared in this search, splitting off into groups which ranged far afield. One detachment of six vehicles, with six from Supply Column, all under Second-Lieutenant Ward, reached the railway station at Levadhia in the early hours of 21 April. There they found a train, loaded partly with petrol and partly with ammunition, drawn up at a siding. Neatly stacked about 20 feet away were 2000 rounds of high-explosive shells and mines. And to this nice little target came the Luftwaffe while Ward and his party were busy loading.
Direct hits set the train on fire, exploding its 25- and 60- pounder shells. At the height of the inferno Driver Macdonald24 of Supply Column, and an Australian sergeant (H. Killalea), uncoupled the burning wagons, found a locomotive several hundred yards away (abandoned by its terrified Greek crew) and managed to get it coupled to a string of twenty-eight undamaged trucks containing petrol, oil, and ammunition. These they drove away to safety; then they came back to help the others, who, throughout the raid, which continued for an hour, calmly went on removing oil, shells and mines from the burning section of the train.
On one of these quests, Second-Lieutenant Collins of Petrol Company was driving along beside a canal when a Greek civilian came rushing up, waving his arms and shouting the only English word he knew: ‘Bastard! Bastard!’ It soon became clear he wasn't referring to Collins, but to someone under a large culvert spanning the canal.
Collins advanced cautiously, with pistol drawn. Huddled beneath the culvert he found two German airmen who had crashed their plane and baled out. One, a mere youngster, was plainly terrified; and not without reason, for as the Jerries page 99 were being taken away, Greek civilians swarmed around the Petrol Company truck, demanding that the prisoners be handed over so they could tear them to pieces. The hatred on the people's faces, Collins says, was frightening. He handed the airmen over to some redcaps at an Australian headquarters, where he first got news of the intended evacuation. One officer there, a trifle tiddly, was giving stuff away wholesale—including a bottle of whisky to Lieutenant Collins, with the parting remark: ‘Well cheerio, Major!’ He had evidently mistaken the New Zealander's lonely pip for a crown.
By 23 April sufficient POL had been found to enable the Division to move to embarkation beaches. On that day, twenty-eight Petrol Company vehicles loaded from a dump at Elatia and made deliveries to units in the line. They uplifted troops of 5 NZ Infantry Brigade and carried them direct to embarkation areas east of Athens. Captain McDonagh commanded the column, while Major Dickson took Company Headquarters and Workshops on ahead to Athens. Petrol Company vehicles not required for these moves were handed over to Major McGuire25 at a dispersal area near the coast road, for destruction along with other NZASC transport. All Company records, manuals, surplus clothing and so on were also burned. Each man retained only his rifle, steel helmet, greatcoat and pack, into which he crammed as much food and cigarettes—freely available from supply dumps now being demolished—as he could carry.
All this went on in an atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust, and a brooding sense of failure. What would tomorrow bring? Were the Greeks really our friends—already their armies in the west had surrendered—and were we not letting them down rather badly? There were rumours, too, of German parachute landings at Corinth; so perhaps escape was already cut off. Precise and reliable information, on almost any matter, just wasn't available.
Dickson took his convoy to a camp near an aerodrome outside Athens, where he ordered the destruction of Workshops vehicles. He then reported to Army Headquarters at the Hotel page 100 Acropole, in the city. There he was instructed, he says, to make a reconnaissance of the beach at Porto Rafti and report back. He did this, but he could get no information as to the embarkation point for 5 Brigade and the Petrol Company drivers with it, or where his own Headquarters and Workshops Sections would embark. Eventually he found out from Royal Navy Movement Control that Porto Rafti was the place.
Still in the forward area, Captain McDonagh had sixteen empty vehicles in hand, and he was ordered to take these to Levadhia and pick up more petrol. They found only 4000 gallons, which they loaded and delivered to forward units. Thirteen of the trucks were then destroyed, the other three carrying troops to Athens for embarkation. This, and a detail on the following day (25 April), when six trucks picked up petrol at Athens and delivered it to dumps on the roadside, were Petrol Company's last operations as an ASC unit in Greece; the last anywhere, in fact, for some considerable time. Staff-Sergeant Rusden wrote:
The last night as a complete Unit was spent by Capt McDonagh, Cpl Rimmer,26 Dvr Walsh27 and myself in a little hut, discussing our moves for the next few days. Next day we moved off to obtain petrol from a dump a long way south. When found, there was not as much as we thought, so Capt McDonagh ordered me to take up what was there and said he would locate more even if he had to go to Athens for it.
As everything was in a terrific hurry I didn't have time to get my clothing from his car, and set off with just trousers and shirt, a.45 and some tobacco. All my personal possessions were in his car and I never saw them again. Capt McDonagh was sidetracked further south and eventually went to Crete where he was killed. We went back up near the line and I took over a Supply Dump from Capt Davis28 of the Supply Coln, and we used this as a Petrol Refilling Point. The whole of the Div, or what remained of it, was serviced; and we were visited by Col Crump, who told us that we would be on our own from then on.
Later on, the trek to the beaches began. I didn't know where to go, but had a message from HQ telling us to make for a certain beach. We were only 15 strong by then, so destroyed surplus vehicles and away. What a trip! Reached Athens early in the morning and was accosted by some pip-squeak who said he was from Army HQ. He was very rude to me, so I threatened to shoot him. He then invited me to accompany him to HQ, which I accepted; but he bolted through the door there like a rabbit, and instructed troops on guard to forbid me entrance. When I told my story to the guards they said ‘O.K., Kiwi. Go on in and shoot the bastard if you want to.’
Eventually found the beach—forget the name of it—and more troubles began. No-one would take any notice of my small group, and we were given the brush-off repeatedly. However, I found an officer's coat and Sam Browne on the beach and put them on. Didn't at any time say I was an officer, but found the coat and accessories very useful. The bloke I was talking to couldn't see under the coat and maybe thought I outranked him, so we 15 were embarked in due course. Waded through the surf to ships' boats, and thence to a destroyer. Boy—were they good to us on that ship!!!
Unfortunately, later in the night we hove to alongside a tramp- ship and were ordered to change over. Nets and things helped the change. After half the destroyer's passengers had made the change, weather and other conditions caused the Captain to stop any further hanging about, so the Tramp made off to Egypt, and the Destroyer went to Crete. In the morning I found my complement was down to seven. The other eight were on the Destroyer still. The trip back was not so good; but Alexandria looked fine when we arrived.
We seven were unitless, and later found we were posted missing, since the whole company except us were stationed in Crete, and later had a very rough time when the dirty business started. We enjoyed ourselves for a day or two, keeping out of the way. But one day I was spotted by Col Crump in the NAAFI. He was very interested in our doings since we had seen him last, and then instructed me to ‘get my Headquarters going again’ and report to him in the morning. What a business! I took Richards29 with me page 102 when we went to see the Chief. He had nothing—not even a pencil— but there was a tent.
I did my best, and eventually NZASG HQ (Egypt) began to function again. Col Crump's chief concern was his Units in Crete; and I have seldom seen a man so distressed as when the casualties began to come in. Eventually the Petrol Company came back— 60 strong from an original 301…. and the remnants were awful glad to be back in filthy Egypt.
By nightfall on 25 April, Major Dickson had got his Workshops, Headquarters and G Sections together at Daphne 2, an Australian camp about ten miles from Marathon, close to the embarkation beaches. He then set off at 11.30 p.m. to locate and bring in A and B Sections, which were still with 5 Brigade after bringing it down from Molos. By 2 a.m. on 26 April most of the Company had safely embarked on HM Transport Glengyle—though Major Dickson was noticed by ‘Skin’ Thompson30 about that time ‘still worrying like Hell over a group of chaps [presumably Rusden's detachment] who had not shown up’.
Bill Ambrose's story of the evacuation is a typical one:
I had had visions of having to wade or even swim. After reading the story of Dunkirk some sort of discomfort seemed to be inevitable, but when my turn came I just walked onto a barge without even seeing the water. It was all so easy. At the ship's side we encountered our only bit of trouble. Had to climb up the side. In the dark it seemed a long way but it proved easy enough.
8 Dvr Bennett was Petrol Company's first casualty from enemy action.
9 Maj B. A. N. Woods; Wellington; born NZ 2 Jul 1892; traveller; 1 NZEF (Auck Mtd Rifles and Anglo-Russian Armd Car Bde); OC ASC Comp Coy 7 Nov-1 Dec 1940; Base Sup Coy Dec 1940-Feb 1941; 4 RMT Coy Feb-Jun 1941.
10 Maj-Gen Sir William Gentry, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1920-22; GSO II NZ Div 1939-40; AA & QMG 1940-41; GSO I May 1941, Oct 1941-Sep 1942; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942-Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff 1943-44; comd NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div, and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944-Feb 1945; 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; Deputy Chief of General Staff, 1946-47; Adjutant-General, 1949-52; Chief of General Staff 1952-55.
13 Brig L. W. Andrew, VC, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Ashhurst, 23 Mar 1897; Regular soldier; Wellington Regt, 1915-19; CO 22 Bn Jan 1940-Feb 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov-6 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, 1943-46; Commander, Central Military District, 1948-52.